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Digging History

Discover artifacts and learn from experts at the Texas Archeological Society Field School.

By Rae Nadler-Olenick

Last June, 300 people of all ages from every part of Texas converged on the Gene Stallings Ranch in Lamar County for a week of fun and discovery digging into the past. Their destination: the Texas Archeological Society’s annual field school, a moveable feast that brings the excitement of hands-on archaeological exploration to different locales around the state.

Since TAS held its first field school in 1962, thousands of Texans of all skill levels have had the chance to experience their state’s history and pre-history firsthand at dozens of sites statewide, from the eastern forests and the Panhandle plains to Galveston Island and the western desert.

“We have professionals and serious avocational archaeologists, but we also have beginners,” says TAS president Carolyn Spock. “No experience is necessary. We teach proper techniques and respect for the cultural resource. We’ve had 7-year-olds and people approaching 100.”

At the field school, seasoned archaeologists lead small-crew excavations in the morning while other work groups process the unearthed materials at an improvised field lab nearby. A full menu of afternoon and evening presentations on such popular topics as flint knapping and artifact identification reinforce knowledge gained earlier. Social events cement bonds of friendship among the multigenerational enthusiasts, both old-timers and newcomers. There are special youth activities for the children and workshops for K-12 teachers.

Until a few years ago, indigenous Americans, whose ancestral grounds are so often the focus of archaeologists’ interest, had rarely attended — in part due to historic tensions between the two groups. That changed in 2003, when TAS past-president Margaret Howard, an archaeologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, introduced a privately funded Native American Field School Scholarship Program.

“The idea was to build relationships based on respect, not agenda,” she says. “Both sides wanted better relations. We wanted to spend time side by side rather than facing each other across a conference table.”

Last summer’s field school participants came to learn about the Fourche-Maline, a little-known pre-Caddo culture that flourished from about 1000 BC to AD 800. Their week’s work produced not only large numbers of dart points and pottery fragments but posthole marks — the first traces of Fourche-Maline houses ever found in Texas — and a giant fire pit with many buffalo bone remnants. They also found large grinding slabs, handstones, charcoal from several kinds of wood, daub and remnants of dietary items including corncob and nutshells.

Twelve Native Americans — representing the Caddo, Kiowa, Seminole, Tap Pilam/Coahuiltecan, Delaware and Choctaw nations — joined in the excavation and artifact processing. In turn, they shared elements of their own cultures through storytelling, a twined bag-tying workshop and a lecture on indigenous language.

The June 2007 field school will travel to the very different Spanish Colonial period setting of Presidio San Saba in Menard, an outpost occupied during the mid-1700s by over 300 Spanish soldiers and civilians. The site yields such objects of everyday life as musket balls, gun flints, iron nails, horse gear, buttons, glass beads and women’s jewelry.

Field school enrollment is limited to TAS members. It’s possible to join TAS and register at the same time. For more information, visit: <www.txarch.org/> or call (210) 458-4393.

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